October 10, 2013

For us at PEMCO, the collected data painted a clear trend, and the 2012 Nielsen Report headline summed it up: "Consumer Trust In 'Earned' Advertising Grows in Importance." While trust sagged in traditional paid advertising messages, confidence soared in online ratings and reviews. The people who like, list, and link their experiences and opinions to a brand are the true influencers and have become the most credible sources of all.

After reading the report, I recalled 2007 and the purposeful decisions that PEMCO made to embrace the voice of the customer more fully. Because of those decisions, we've collected feedback, listened to customers more intently, and used their input in ways that directly improve our products and services.

Among other outcomes, PEMCO changed the way we open daily business meetings. Regardless of the meeting's size, attendees, or topic, we've made it a PEMCO best practice to start every meeting with a customer story. We found that sharing stories is the best way to bring the customer into the room and give our discussions a sense of purpose and focus. Many of the stories stem directly from PEMCO ratings and reviews.

[For more from Brooks, check out How Listening to Customers Helps Small Insurers Beat Big Ones]

The cornerstone of our business model emphasizes our commitment to "lead with relationship." We leverage our home court advantage by creating true intimacy with our nearby policyholders and the communities where they live, work, learn, and play.

In 2011, one year after installing the BazaarVoice Ratings and Review platform, our team began to leverage consumer content and sentiment in new and extended ways. Editor's note: See this article for more information on PEMCO and reviews.

We established three clear goals:

1. Use customer feedback to better inform and enhance our services at every touchpoint.

2. Identify and address unmet consumer wants and needs in ways that reflect a truly world-class customer experience.

3. Reflect customer values in marketing initiatives by differentiating. We're unique – we're the only hyper-local insurance carrier serving the Northwest.

Recognizing that we needed a multi-dimensional approach to integrate customer insight and input into PEMCO's culture and business practices, we now regularly use our data on customer sentiment in four ways:

Listen: We've invested in tools and initiatives that encourage customers to share openly and honestly. Reviews ranging in sentiment from superlative to cynical are welcome and posted publicly (never deleted) for employees and consumers to view.

Organize: We evaluate every review and share them with departments and individuals who may benefit from their content. PEMCO has learned the value of quick, public responses to critical reviews, and we frequently invite reviewers to engage in offline conversations that boost our understanding and improve short and long-term resolution.

Engage: As demonstrated in the Nielsen Report, consumers trust the voices of friends, relatives, and even online connections they've never met more than the messages of brands and marketers. This insight prompted PEMCO to rethink our approach to the content of traditional and online advertising. We now include the voice of the customer to build credibility with consumers and engage them in relevant and authentic ways.

Measure: Our metrics of success, while proprietary, have consistently improved since we enabled and embraced online ratings and reviews. Conversations have increased and brand perception and sentiment for PEMCO have strengthened. New-business response rates generated by direct mail and banner ads have improved by as much as 15% when we incorporated content taken from consumer ratings and reviews.

Fellow consumers' voices and word-of-mouth marketing are impacting buying decisions. By using well-managed technology platforms and tools, today's marketers can harness the power of brand loyalists and advocates in new and meaningful ways. What's holding you back?

About the author: Rod Brooks is VP and CMO of PEMCO, a regional P&C insurer in the Pacific Northwest.